How to Keep Bad Habits From Ruling Your Life


When is the last time you exercised? How much television have you watched this week? What time did you wake up this morning? And how many times have you checked your e-mail today? The answers to these questions depend on your habits.

I’ve done a lot of work changing habits within myself. With a little effort and a lot of patience I’ve conditioned myself to exercise, eat healthy, read more, write daily and minimize wastes of time. I was disorganized, unmotivated and ruled by bad habits, but through using the methods I’ll describe, I’ve managed to free myself.

How to Engineer Your Habits

Engineering your habits isn’t that difficult. I’ve written in great lengths about how to change a habit, both in my original Habitual Mastery series, and more fully in How to Change a Habit. Despite overwhelming feedback, I still see people suffering from the same mistakes.

More than tools, I think having the right viewpoint is critical. If you’re expecting quick fixes or magic tricks, you need to look elsewhere. Similarly if you think sheer force is going to change automatic behaviors, you must be confused. Here are some suggestions when engineering your life:

  1. One Habit at a Time – I can’t stress this enough. Every once in awhile I’ll get an e-mail from someone who wants to change all their habits immediately. Cultivating good habits is like growing crops. You can’t expect them to sprout instantly just because you water them constantly.
  2. One Month Per Habit – It takes a month to solidify a habit. It can take a year to make that habit completely formed. At one habit per month, it may seem like a painfully slow process. But remember, in only a year you can tackle 6-12 habits. That means you could go from a lazy slacker to:
    • Exercising daily
    • Eating healthy
    • Following GTD
    • Waking up earlier
    • Limiting your television usage
    • Using efficient e-mail practices
    • Begin reading a book per week
    • Improving your study/work habits
    • Build a relaxation/stress management ritual
    • Maintaining a journal
    • Improving your organizing skills
    • Practice a new skill or language

    All in one year! This assumes perfect consistency, for your first year I’d probably say a good goal would be 4-5 major habits. But even at that rate you are accomplishing what some people never do in their entire lives. Be patient, the process is fast, don’t feel compelled to go faster.

  3. Engineer by Trial and Error – You are going to screw up. You’re going to go twenty days and break your commitment. You’ll forget about your habit a week in. You’ll forget about scheduling conflicts that distort your plans. Don’t feel bad. Habit engineering is complex, and you need to keep tweaking your approach until you get it right. It took me four tries before I started exercising consistently, now I love it.
  4. Be Consistent – Running Monday, yoga Tuesday, skipping Wednesday and hitting the gym Thursday may sound like fun. But it’s hard to turn a jumbled routine into a habit. Following the same pattern, at least initially, will increase your chances it will stick.
  5. Balance your Feedback – Leo of ZenHabits, brings up an excellent point in this article on habits. If you have more negative feedback than positive feedback, your habit won’t last. Even if you condition it well, it will slowly crumble away. Tip the scales in your favor so your efforts won’t be wasted. Check out the full article for more ideas.
  6. You’re Probably Wrong – Don’t assume habits are strictly good or bad. This bias will make it harder to view your results objectively. I’ve tried following habits others said were best, only to find they didn’t fit my life. Changing habits is a process of discovery.
  7. Not All Problems are Habits – Once you get the ball rolling and start engineering your life, you may want to solve every problem with a new habit. Habits run in the background, and while they can greatly enhance life, they aren’t a complete solution. At the same time, don’t discount habit changing just because it can’t fix every problem.
  8. Get Trigger Happy – Forming a trigger is a good way to make a habit consistent. A trigger is simply a specific, highly ordered routine you do before your habit starts. You can use a trigger such as jumping out of bed when your alarm sounds, or snapping your fingers to keep from biting your nails.
  9. Keep Commitments Precise – Vague commitments, vague results. Keep any promises to yourself perfectly clear. Don’t promise to “exercise more.” Promise to exercise once a day for at least thirty minutes and then list what you qualify as exercising.
  10. Keep Promises Simple – Simple commitments will stick better than complex ones. By following only one or two rules instead of a dozen, you will have more flexibility later.
  11. Replace Lost Needs – All of your habits are pieces of the larger puzzle. If you remove or change one, it may result in a distorted picture across other pieces. Removing television may stifle your need for social interaction, entertainment or relaxation. It’s important to replace lost needs with new sources so your habits won’t crumble away.
  12. Buy the Guide – Okay, time for a shameless plug. Honestly, I could talk about this subject all day, but if you are seriously interested in changing your habits consider getting my guide. How to Change a Habit is inexpensive and comes in an easy to read format to give you tons of ideas to get started.

  • Tipps und Tricks

    Be persistent. Go in the right direction. A year has 365 days. If you have a seback, do not succumb negative emotions. The next day is another day.

  • Hari Emani

    Hi Scott,

    I started reading your articles few days ago after first finding “10 ways to improve your energy” at Google. You have a very good view point in almost all areas. I really appreciate it and enjoy reading your articles, and it is very rare that we find some one like you.

    When it comes to changing habits, I always try to change a particular habit, but some thing else impacting the progress of the new habit. As you mentioned in your Habitual Mastery series, we need to replace the habit, we cannot change the habit. That is an excellent point I realized.

    Now coming to the point, I wanted to mention that if you change one or two habits, in your life, other habits that depend on them will also automatically change. For example, you want to feel energetic. So you start exercise. After a few days you will not only start feel energetic, you will also feel motivated towards your day, you will enjoy spending more time with your loved ones. Apart from this, depending on your diet, you will also reduce weight or build mussels. I started doing yoga in Jan, 2006. Till now I reduced 10 pounds, with out paying any special effort on my diet. I eat almost every thing, but in a limited quantity. Apart from this I also have some BY PRODUCTS. I also find myself more productive in my work, having more fun at home and office, able to make quick decisions. My objective of starting the yoga was to stay physically fit. I did not or never anticipate all the other BY PRODUCTS doing yoga for longer period of time.

    So for those who are serious of changing any habit, please start working on the root cause of your motivation. In my situation, I want to stay fit, so started doing yoga. When you master one thing and start enjoying, you will find other UNWATED habits, or thins will fade away from your with out any conscious effort from your side. This is my personal experience. By the way to start experiencing the fruit of BY PRODUCTS, I had do yoga continuously for nearly a year.

    To explain further, I will give one more real life example of smokers. I found a guy who comes to the same yoga center that I go. He used to smoke a lot. His objective of visiting the yoga center was not to quit smoking, but to stay physically fit. Once he observed certain change in his physiology, he quit smoking, reduced the amount of meet in his meals, he reduced alcohol in take. After seeing the change in this person, several of his friends enrolled in the yoga class.

    The point I am trying to make here is, instead of think about all the habits that you want to change, just concentrate on improving your over system, not a single habit. That will definitely take longer time than changing a habit, but the rewards are profound. You will be amazed. Let us assume that your habit is like a weed in the pond. You feel like getting rid of the habit, then you just take away the weed and feel good for some time. Then one fine day you will find the weed coming up again. For this you should identify the root cause, then work at the system level. It may be longer than expected, but the results will amaze you.

    By the way, to change any habit, we are usually asked to practice for 21 days. The reason for this is that humans take 21 days to form a new neural pathway in our brain.

    Lot more to share,

    Hari Emani

  • kenneth daniels

    For me & the way my mind works ,I have to say work on one habit at
    a time is something I need to concentrate on first . My best intentions
    I tend to be compulsive about changing alot of things at once .which
    ends up to my downfall . So thank you for keeping me in check

  • Iair

    @Hari Emani:
    Nice point of view.
    Related to the 21 day period instead of a month, Scott pointed in his book that it’s a matter of convenience (there is no magic in the number). 30 days it’s much simpler to follow. If 21 days work, that’s great too. I’ve heard that 40 days it’s a good number too (according to the jewish culture).
    I must say i’ve bought the book and it worked for me. This article is great too.
    Thanks Scott!
    PS: it’s amazing how Scott can extract so many points of view (articles) from the same topic. All of the approaches he makes are excellent.

  • Habit Guy

    I am a professor of psychology who studies habits and how to change them.

    This is a great post and a lot of what you say lines up with what the research shows. I can’t emphasize enough, one habit at a time please. Rushing head-long into an ‘orgy of self-improvement’ is bound to lead to failure.

  • Scott Young

    Amen, Habit Guy!

  • Kelly


    I have a truly bad habbit of calling in to work sick, and procrastinating.

    After being broke for the last couple of years due to college I have just been hired at a wonderful job that pays great. I have already called out sick this week. I don’t know why I do this but I have done this in the past at other jobs and when I feel like I am just about to get into trouble or people are looking down upon me I shape up in order not to lose my job.

    I want to break this habit and build great work ethics.

    I always feel so guilty when I take the day off that I never even enjoy the time off work.